Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Review: She Stoops to Conquer

She Stoops to Conquer was first performed in 1773, and yet something about it remains relevant and appealing to a modern audience.

Considering the pompous costumes this show demands, National Theatre have managed to produce a remarkably fresh interpretation. At times it’s so fresh that you forget the script is unaltered from the original.

Tonight is special because the National Theatre are filming this performance and beaming it live around the world. Before the lights go down, two television screens on the side of the stage, show us a presenter delivering a live introduction from the roof of the building. Throughout the show, these screens continue to show us what is being broadcast. I found it quite entertaining to watch them briefly during the live performance and imagine others at the exact same moment experiencing this performance with only the screens.

When the show begins, I’m captivating immediately. A catchy pub-like tune has been composed and an enormous chorus appear on stage singing it in the style of an A Cappella group – though in this case they are backed by an impressive band.

It’s quite riveting and reminds me of a version of the Threepenny Opera I once saw that opened with Mack the Knife. That was an equally genius opening but sadly the same zest didn’t infuse the rest of that show, and I was underwhelmed.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen this time around, and I found myself enjoying every moment.

Sophie Thompson as Mrs Hardcastle.
The main thrust of the story involves a rich girl pretending to be a barmaid in order to be seen as interesting (and not stuffy) by a visitor who is staying in her father’s house under the false pretence that it’s an inn.

This show is consistently clever and witty. Particular mention must be given to Sophie Thompson, whose hysterical Mrs Hardcastle steals the show.

But really, the people behind the scenes at the National must be given most of the credit. The direction is superb, the inclusion of bizarre chorus songs to bring pace is genius, and the staging is among the best I have ever seen.

If you’re in London, go see this show. If you’re not, try to find a copy of the BBC broadcast – and you can watch it knowing that I saw the exact same performance!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Review: Mamma Mia

I’ve been avoiding this show ever since I moved to London. That’s how much I despised the movie. I was even offered free tickets at one point. I already had tickets to something better that night (unfortunately).

When I decided to finally go and see Mamma Mia, I tried to shake off all my preconceptions about this show and just enjoy it. I reminded myself that it’s the original jukebox musical, and it’s a little unfair to hate it just because it spurred a decade of underwhelming musical theatre that continues to stifle originality on both sides of the Atlantic.

I can’t deny that it’s good fun. Who doesn’t love ABBA? That’s the whole premise behind the jukebox musical. The tagline on the Mamma Mia tube posters at the moment is – I kid you not – “you already know you’re going to love it”. With an audience preconditioned to love you, you can’t really go wrong!

Some credit has to be given to Judy Craymer, who conceived the whole idea, for creating a storyline that fits in most of the songs. But no matter how enjoyable the songs may be, the fundamental flaw with jukebox musicals is the difference between a concert and musical theatre. A good concert is a series of good songs. But a musical needs more than this: each and every song must add to the story. You can still have group dance numbers and big ballads, but ultimately each and every song furthers the narrative in some way.

A good writer can achieve this with a couple of the songs in a jukebox musical, but overall the majority of them can achieve only that whimsical satisfaction you get when you hear a song you like at a concert, and not the level of emotional connection and storyline momentum that a musical needs to be anything more than  bubblegum. Mamma Mia is full of songs that were written to make you smile for three minutes, and only a handful actually do anything for the plot.

The singing and dancing is very, very good, but the producers take absolutely no risks (why can’t Donna be  alone on an empty stage for the end of The Winner Takes it All?). And at the end of the day what little interesting character development there has been, is mostly thrown away for a happy ending; Donna, a woman who has shown herself to be proudly single and genuinely happy, is still a shrew to be tamed by a man with a ring.

If you already know you’re going to love Mamma Mia, then you probably will. If you need something with a bit of originality, substance or flair in order to get your money’s worth from a night at the theatre, then pick something else.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Legally Blonde Again

Legally Blonde is one of those shows that sounds average, but leaves you surprised as you leave the theatre at how much you've enjoy it. I saw it last year and loved it. So, when I heard that it was closing at Easter, I made sure I booked again while there was still a chance, bringing a bunch of friends along for the ride.

I have little to add to what I said last time. Most of the cast was unchanged, apart from Elle, who was equally fantastic to the girl I saw last year.

I’ll miss knowing that this show is on every night in my city. Although I’m mildly ashamed to admit that I can’t wait for the amateur rights to be released...

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Weekend in Stockholm

The Swedish equivalent of a coffee break is known as Fika, and it's infinitely popular. In fact, the coffee in Stockholm was so good that I felt like I was back home in Auckland again.

The best little café in Stockholm (if I may be so bold!) is called Chokladkoppen, and it's located at the bottom of a cute IKEA-chic building right in the heart of Gamla Stan; the old town. Dim bulbs dangle with excess wiring from the ceiling, providing enough illumination to admire the oil paintings but not enough to spot a pimple on the face opposite you. Perfect.

Having arrived in Stockholm the night before, this is our first excursion into the city, and we're excited to sample chocolatey perfection in the form of a delicately presented double shot mochaccino.

Chokladkoppen on the right.

From the café, we walked to a tower in Slussen that boasted the best views of Stockholm, but unfortunately it was closed.

So we headed back along the edge of Gamla Stan to the National Museum of Art. The collection was breathtaking.

From there, we had the pleasure of walking along the edge of the water for about an hour to our next stop. Stockholm is on an archipelago, and has many bridges between islands, so you're never far from water.

Our next stop was undoubtedly my favourite part of the entire trip. That moment when you know it was already worth coming.

The Vasa Museum sounds vaguely interesting when you read about it. It's not until you actually visit and see it for yourself that the penny drops about how incredibly fascinating this really is. The Vasa was the pride of Sweden's fleet until it sank in 1628. Sweden's water is cold enough that it doesn't host the vast numbers of wood destroying sea creatures, so when the wreck was discovered in 1961, it was still intact. The war ship was slowly dredged from the ocean floor at the request of the King, and salvaged with advanced wood restoration techniques.

The result isn't just the pride of the Vasa Museum, it's the only thing on show in this purpose built venue.

And it's incredible. The sheer scale blew my mind. The most comparable experience of my life was watching Pirates of the Caribbean at IMAX. And this was seriously cooler.

We left the Vasa Museum seriously energised in that way that only happens when you experience something truly unexpected on your travels.

When we left, the sun had come grandly out.

We walked back to the tower we'd tried to visit earlier, which was now open. We arrived just in time for sunset. However, Murphy's Law dictates that something must go wrong at this moment. And in this case, I forgot to update the settings on the camera from the dark Vasa Museum; so captured a whole lot of nothing. At a stretch I was able to squeeze this out of the best photograph:

It's not as amazing as what we actually saw... but at least it looks sort of ancient!
One of the few things I knew about Stockholm before visiting was that the metro system was a work of art. Specifically, the hard rock that was carved out to create the metro has been painted to become part of the charm of the network.

This was our next stop:

The guard at the station was able to give us an art guide to the metro system, so we embarked on a trip all over Stockholm encountering the weird and wonderful public art installations.

Definitely the first metro system I've ever encountered that's worth of a tour in its own right.

Our final day in Stockholm was spent again exploring Gamla Stan, walking right through the centre of Parliament:

We returned to Chokladkoppen for a traditional Swedish open sandwich along with the perfect white chocolate cheesecake. Afterwards, we explored the Modern Museum of Art. Then headed back to the airport, and home again to London.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Life Lesson #43 – Mad Dash

You can call me Usain.

This is me. For real.
When you fly Ryanair on a non-EU passport, you have to get a visa-check stamp when you arrive at the airport, before going through security. Every other airline does it just before you board. This means that if you’re silly enough to forget to get one, you’re pretty much screwed unless you’re Usain Bolt.

Which I totally am.

This kind of rookie mistake should have cost us our trip. But, with lightening speed and a flash of a smile to the security people who aren’t supposed to let you back out, and the check-in people who aren’t meant to stamp a passport for a flight that’s leaving in 2 mins, we made it all the way through Gatwick airport and back to our gate in a flash.

The gate had already closed. But the guard was so shocked to see us again that he tipped his hat to us by reopening and allowing us to board!

I was puffing and panting the whole way to Stockholm. I haven’t felt so exhausted since Fourth Form cross country (after they foiled my plan to see the school counsellor at that exact time in order to get out of it).

I guess, unlike the other Usain, exercise doesn’t agree with me. Endorphins Schmendorphins.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Review: Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd is probably the most macabre successful musical in history. The gruesome plot revolves around a barber slicing the throats of his customers, who are promptly chopped up and stuffed into pies by his bakery owning accomplice.

I would speculate that it laid the foundation for other grime-fest (Les Mis) and sinister (Phantom) blockbuster musicals that followed over the next decade.

Sondheim’s score is, as always, genius. Demonstrating that he’s one of the few Americans who understands the British stiff upper lip, there are no big belt songs – just a series of gently simmering, discordant refrains that are established in the first act and crescendo into a riveting, perfect nightmare during the second.

An almost unrecognisable Michael Ball brings a much-needed likeability to the murderous protagonist, drawing a fresh ‘whimsical next-door-neighbour’ side from Sweeney. Originality is difficult to achieve with a role we’ve seen performed so well so many times before, and he must be credited for it.

Given she found fame as a film actress, I was initially sceptical about Imelda Staunton’s casting in the demanding role of Mrs Lovett. But I was completely wrong. Her comic timing was impeccable and her voice was excellent. She faltered once with a clumsy switch to head voice, but that’s the only unfavourable comment I can make about her performance. My favourite moments in the show all belonged to her – The Worst Pies in London was hysterically funny without being slapstick, and her Nothing’s Gonna Harm You brought out exactly the right degree of menacing undertones to make it the creepiest lullaby ever written.

The chorus is extraordinary – this is one of the few shows that doesn’t require them to dance, or look like supermodels. The result of this is that they have all been cast based on their vocal talent alone – and this shows in their ability to tackle even the most elaborate of Sondheim’s melodies without the slightest sign of strain.

In this tale, story is king. To date, no attempt to introduce avant-garde design, staging or effects (no matter how well-intentioned, such as the chorus doubling as the orchestra in the most recent Broadway revival), has quite pulled it off. Ultimately, any such endeavour is doomed to undermine the story by robbing attention. The artistic team behind this production must be applauded for understanding this, and opting for relatively simple, traditional set design, staging and lighting. No wonder Sondheim himself loved it so much.

The opportunity to experience a show of this strength with actors of this calibre doesn’t come along every day. If you are in London, do not let this one slip by.

A Year of Superlatives

Today is exactly one year since I said ka kite ano to Aotearoa and my whanau.

Or, in English, since we abandoned everyone and fled to the other side of the world.

A lot has happened. I've been unbelievably fortunate enough to spend 125 days travelling out of 366, covering over 64,000 km. 

There have been 211 blog posts, 21 trips, 14 new countries, 31 flights (plus two failed ones), 47 shows, 4 new ticks on the bucket list, and 16,933 photos to show for it all.

This is my list of superlatives: the best and the worst of a year spent exploring...

Awkwardest photo

(this was the hardest one of all, and in fact a three way tie. So make sure you click the right part of the words!)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Review: Singin' in the Rain

I often wish I loved old movies, but unfortunately I find most of them so trite that I have trouble paying attention. However, there are two classic films I can watch again and again: Some Like it Hot, and Singin’ in the Rain. Both have genuinely appealing storylines, are hysterically funny, and feature a trio of talented, deservedly famous actors.

The Palace Theatre is now host to a brand new production with not only a perfect cast but onstage rain too!

With The Artist coming out on top at the recent Academy Awards, 2012 is the year the silent film came back. So it’s a fitting time to revive this beloved classic based in the period of transition from silent films to ‘talkies’.

Singin’ in the Rain was first seen onstage in the 80s, but the volume of the falling rain and the ensuing mic trouble resulted in a disappointing reception. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, the new West End production has overcome these obstacles.

The set is mainly a sound stage at ‘Monumental Pictures’. Everything is black and white, and the edges of set piece facades are visible, which reminds us that everything is paper thin in the movie business.

There is not a bad note in the entire cast. Considering that every one of them must be a triple threat, this is astounding. Daniel Crossley’s Cosmo wins early fans as he shows his cheeky side in ‘Fit as a Fiddle’, but it’s Scarlett Strallen as Kathy Selden who really owns the show.

Few people know that Debbie Reynolds’ singing voice for all the more difficult numbers in the original movie was actually subbed in by an uncredited Betty Noyes. Yet Reynolds, who was not a trained dancer, still famously said that “Singin’ in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I ever had to do in my life”. So, the fact that Scarlett Strallen can pull it off live every single night is astonishing.

While the title song is a clear highlight, every single number in this show is brilliantly written and interpreted for the stage - particularly Moses Supposes, Make 'em Laugh, and Good Morning. In fact, the only negative point I can make about the entire show is that Cosmo doesn't do 'the wall flip thing'. This really is a fantastic evening at the theatre that manages to do the treasured film proud.

If you’re lucky enough to sit in the second row, like I did, you will leave the theatre saturated.

Saturated, but grinning. And humming that irresistible tune.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A Weekend in Oslo

View from the top at Frognerseteren.
Within a few hours of landing in Norway, I was having one of the best Saturday afternoons of my life. Mind you, that was kind of predictable the moment toboggans were mentioned! 
Frognerseteren is definitely my favourite thing about Oslo. Where else in the world can you catch an ordinary metro to the top of a mountain, hire a toboggan and then skid your way down a 15 minute long, former Olympic ice track?

...and then catch the metro back to the top of the hill and do it again as many times as you want?

We managed to do it six times. And it was awesome every time. You have to learn quickly how to throw your weight around to stop you careening off the side and down the icy cliffside. 

A big part of the trick is using your heels. The only downside is that you end up sending large mounds of shaved ice shooting towards your nether regions, and everyone on the metro thinks you've wet yourself.

In-between races we warmed up at the beautiful old traditional Norwegian wooden lodge, where two hot chocolates and a small pastry to share will set you back just £25 (equivalent). Needless to say, we brought a lot of our own food to Norway out of necessity!

Inside, they have lamps made with antlers.
The sun was setting as we ascended the hill for our last ride of the day. That view alone was worth the whole trip to Oslo.

The next morning, after an amazing breakfast at the Radisson (everything is so expensive in Norway that the Radisson was one of the cheapest accommodation options!), we checked out the Royal Palace.

The view from our room at the Radisson.

Then we caught a bus to the Viking Ship Museum, which has the most intact remnants of Viking life, including four incredible boats.

This beast is over 1000 years old.

Next stop: Vigelandsparken Sculpture Park, which was far larger than I expected and completely blew my mind with the detail and sheer number of incredible works.

Just one of the many impressive sculptures on display.

The jewel in the crown of the sculpture park is 14m high monolith consisting of over 120 human figures all carved from a single stone and intertwined together. It really is breathtaking.

To cap off our incredible weekend in Oslo, we visited the two major art museums which include Edvard Munch's most famous work: The Scream.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Life Lesson #42 - Close Shave

If you’ve had the misfortune of running into me this week, I’ll forgive you for thinking I got into an accident with a lawnmower.

I’ve been sort of growing my hair ever since I left New Zealand. Well, the top anyway. It got to the point where my fringe reached the bottom of my nose. This became so high maintenance that it only looked good for bursts of approximately 30 seconds. And my morning routine started to require over a minute of hair-related activity, which is just excessive. I’d make a useless female.

You can call me Rapunzel.  

So, I made up my mind to cut it around the one year anniversary of leaving home. But not just cut it a little; we’re talking radical departure.

Determined to surprise everyone, I didn’t mention my plans to anybody. I bought clippers on eBay, and for some unknown idiotic reason set about attacking my scalp in the half hour space I had at home between work and Norway.

It all went very smoothly. With a large mirror to help me, I clipped all my hair off using the longest setting on the clippers - 21mm.

I cleaned the clippers, then quickly checked to make sure I hadn’t missed anywhere. I had. There was a patch towards the middle of my scalp that was a few millimetres too long.

Zzzzzz... off it goes. (No that’s not sleeping, that’s clipper noise).

When cleaning the clippers I had bumped the length down to the lowest setting. 3mm.

I was too horrified to take a photo of the result. But it looked something like this.

So, I did the only thing I could do: made like a member of the KKK and introduced my entire scalp to the sunlight, or at least within a few millimetres of it.

Within ten minutes, I’d gone from the longest hair of my life to the shortest. I’m pretty sure I came out of the womb with more.

Then I did the only other thing I could do: put on a hat.

I didn’t take the hat off until hours later in our hotel room, when I scared Paul half to death by whipping it off.

But it got worse.

When I showed him the back, he laughed so hard he almost farted, then took a photo to show me what I’d done:


Yes, that’s right. I shaved a finger sized spot right in the middle of the back of my head completely bald. My head is doing the fingers.

When we got back to London he tried to touch it up. But there wasn’t much that could be done. I now look like a moth bitten fur coat. Only with shorter hair.


At least it will grow, I guess.